Klondike Smokey City

Youth mentorship smooths childhood challenges in North Memphis

There is a great need for youth mentorship in the Klondike Smokey City community in North Memphis, and it’s a task various neighborhood leaders are tackling head on.

Colley Cooper believes his story is a pretty common one in inner-city Memphis.

Today he’s the pastor of Hope City, a new church plant that meets Sundays in the Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School in Smokey City. But as a teenager in 1980s Westwood, he sold drugs and was part of a gang. He was in and out of jail and went through 12 rehab centers to kick a cocaine habit until it finally stuck for good in 2000.

Cooper is quick to point out mentors who helped him turn a corner such as Dr. James Netters Sr. of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood. He wants to have that same impact on other youth, specifically in the North Memphis neighborhoods of Klondike and Smokey City.

“I tell the younger guys that I had a mother and father in the home but I still felt a void because my father worked all the time. I was a mama’s boy, but I wanted that love and affection from my father. I didn’t get it," Cooper said.

Kids on the North Memphis Steelers football team practice at the Katie Sexton Community Center.

"I needed that male bonding, which is really important especially with African-American men today. You have a lot of fatherless households. I had the father in the house but I still felt that void.”

Cooper headed down a path that found him selling drugs at 13 and looking at a three-year sentence in the Shelby County Correctional Center at 19.

Mentors needed

Cooper’s tale is a common one he encounters in North Memphis. He and other youth leaders want to reverse that trend. Youth mentorship is a task shared by various individuals in Klondike Smokey City, and in some observers’ eyes there needs to be more work, resources and attention paid to the neighborhood’s up-and-coming generation.

Poverty permeates Klondike Smokey City in North Memphis. U.S. Census estimates from 2014 reveal that almost 50 percent of the neighborhood made less than $15,000 that year. Only 30 percent of the neighborhood’s residents earned between $25,000 and $75,000.

Mentorship can keep kids in school and on the way to a better future. And part of that work occurs at the community centers, two of which serve the Klondike Smokey City neighborhoods – Katie Sexton in Klondike and Dave Wells in Smokey City. Bickford Community Center sits just to the west in Uptown and Hollywood Community Center is a few miles to the east.

EJ Simmons leads a group of kids running laps around the field next to Katie Sexton Community Center in Klondike during practice for the North Memphis Steelers.

Together, these organizations do what they can to give North Memphis youth an after-school and weekend home.

“The role we try to play is to keep kids out of trouble,” said Billy Richmond, director of Dave Wells. “They can come here and I know I’ve got them until their parents pick them up or we close at 8.”

Not every student in the neighborhood walks through the doors of the community centers, but Richmond tries his best to get them in and keep them involved.

“You always have kids you wish would stop in,” he said. “After school you have some that walk past every day.”

The Klondike Smokey City neighborhoods had 4,765 residents in 2014, according to U.S. Census estimates. Of those, 24.4 percent are 17 years and younger.

Preparing for young adulthood is vital in this community where 51 percent of the population is 34 and younger.

Kids on the North Memphis Steelers football team practice at the Katie Sexton Community Center.

Richmond said a big need in the neighborhood is paying jobs. He said he believes the opportunity to do meaningful work for pay would provide a needed incentive for area youth stay on a positive track.

The Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp. had one such program last year that employed neighborhood girls in a screen printing apprenticeship that ran from March to October. Brittany Bullock mentored the girls who participated in the art program.

She said that the youth of Klondike Smokey City need mentoring even if it doesn’t come in the traditional definition of the word.

“So often young people are looking up to individuals that aren’t truly accessible to them,” she said. “They’re looking up to people who don’t share the same space they do, or just aren’t on the same journey they are. They’re aspiring to be people that are inaccessible.

It’s important for me as an artist to be rooted in communities like Klondike so they can see the tangible result of a person who has had a similar journey as they have.”

Folks from North Memphis gathered at the Dave Wells Community center in Smokey City for a meet-and-greet geared at people interested in the North Memphis Steelers peewee football team.

Bullock said she doesn’t believe the girls in Klondike Smokey City face unique obstacles. Rather she called it a shared narrative that is faced across the city. One thing she noticed is that the young women struggle to participate in conversations with adults.

“What does it mean for adults to listen to them and make space for them to truly say how they feel without any judgment,” Bullock said.

“When we’re struggling with things and doing things in or outside the program, just allowing them to say what they felt and how they wanted to say it was special to them. We as adults don’t allow them to say it sometimes.”

Laying the groundwork

Nearly a quarter of the community’s population is 17 and younger. Of those, 10 percent are younger than 5.

Perea Preschool starts with the basics to reach that demographic. Alicia Norman is principal of the school that shares space with Klondike Elementary School. Norman knows the importance of organizations such as Perea to the neighborhood.

Aaliyah Griffin dances along with girls who are practicing cheers at the Dave Wells Community Center in Smokey City.

Her job at Perea is to implement a curriculum that includes social and emotional learning for children which can cover some basic skills they don’t always receive at home.

“It’s important in this community to understand conflict resolution skills,” said Norman, who grew up in poverty in South Memphis.

“The power to use your voice to say, ‘I don’t like it when you take my toy.’ Hopefully as they build on this foundation they can solve conflicts as teens and adults.

I think the reason we see crime is a lack of adults who can resolve conflicts. That starts very young and a lot of our families don’t have the tools or capacities to teach this to children.”

The Diva Sensations majorette team runs through dress rehearsal at the Dave Wells Community Center in Smokey City.

Preparing children for success in school is vital. Census data reveals that in 2014, 22 percent of Klondike Smokey City residents had some high school education but no diploma, which is twice as high as the Shelby County-wide rate for high school drop-outs.

Perea’s education foundation is important as it can bolster students once they move out of preschool.

There are other services Perea provides to its families including a variety of outreach programs such as a food effort that sends groceries home with the children each week that will feed the family through the weekend.

Feeding children isn’t part of the blueprint to operate a community center, but Richmond believes strongly in the idea of feeding the young bellies of the children and teens who walk through the doors of Dave Wells.

“A lot of times they come here hungry,” he said. “I keep things in my drawer for them. We try to provide food in the evening. They come in here looking hungry.”

Place to call home

How the North Memphis community centers reach the young people of the neighborhood might differ but the mission remains the same: to provide a safe haven for everyone. At Dave Wells, the day starts around noon when adults have a couple of hours of free play in the gym before the focus turns to the children leaving the nearby schools.

At a final dress rehearsal at the Dave Wells Community Center, Eriany Brown, 8, gets help with makeup from her coach Keisha Moss before a performance with their majorette team Diva Sensations.

The center serves as an after-school home for the children, a safe place where they come to first do their homework and access to a tutor. They then have a couple of hours to participate in basketball or majorette programs. There are basketball teams for kids aged around 10-years-old 12-years-old. The teams play against other community centers across North Memphis, Raleigh and Frayser.

Many of the children and teens that visit the Dave Wells Community Center attend nearby Caldwell-Guthrie, Manassas High School or Humes Preparatory Academy, and Richmond knows them all by face and name.

Families come and go through the neighborhood which is a trend that differs from when Richmond grew up in the Hollywood area just a few miles to the east in North Memphis.

Kids play a game during a meet-and-greet for the North Memphis Steelers peewee football team at the Dave Wells Community Center in Smokey City.

“There’s turnover,” he said. “This month I might see this family then for three or four months it’s a different set of families. You have some who have been in the neighborhood and come back. You might get this group of kids this year and next year it’s a whole new group of kids.”

The faces might change but Richmond said it’s important the center serves them where it can. And for the past 13 years, Richmond has been at Dave Wells as its director.

The Douglass High School graduate continued his education at LeMoyne-Owen College where he also played baseball. In fact, his retired jersey hangs in the gym rafters today.

“Up here I’m granddad, dad, Mr. Richmond or pop,” he said, talking about his relationship to the children and teens he encounters daily.

North Memphis students, much like their counterparts in other underserved neighborhoods across the city, carry unique burdens. Hunger is one. Moving from neighborhood to neighborhood is another.

Kids on the North Memphis Steelers football team practice at the Katie Sexton Community Center.

Sometimes, particularly with the little ones, they simply miss mommy. Norman relayed the story of a young girl who, after crying in the classroom for over an hour, came to visit the principal.

“She stood in front of my desk and didn’t say a word,” Norman recalled. “I said, ‘You look sad. Why are you sad? What happened today?’ She said, ‘I’m upset because my mom has to work all the time and she’s never at home. We’re never home together. I’m sleepy and tired.’

She just cried on my shoulder. She’s frustrated about her mother’s need to work and provide for the family. That’s a real thing for our students.”

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Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler.